There is nothing better than an impending disaster to clarify the distinction between the essential and the trivial. When total annihilation is on the horizon no one is wasting any time worrying about whether it’s going to rain this weekend.
The standard formula for disaster movies builds upon the stark choices offered by the threat of total calamity.
In response to a devastating threat a diverse group of people must overcome their cultural, temperamental and historical differences to work effectively as a team and overcome the problem.
In the 1998 classic Armageddon, (JJ Abrams of Lost fame is one of the script writers) an asteroid the size of Texas is on a collision course with Earth and NASA must assemble a cranky group of talented misfits (led by Bruce Willis) to save humanity from certain extinction.
Kind of like a startup on steroids?
We respond to these dramas, even though they are universally cheesy, because there is a primal pleasure in watching individuals (who are just as imperfect as we are) come together as a team, under extreme pressure, to triumph over adversity.
In the process, the characters remain true to themselves, loyal to each other, not afraid to take risks and they have a lot fun in the process.
Where do I sign up?
They don’t let worry take over and get in the way, they have no time for pettiness and negativity, they are intensely focused.
You can learn a lot about the best way to get things done from people whose lives depend on getting things done.
If the Harvard Business School develops a course titled: “Deriving a Paradigm for High Performing Teams from Disaster Movies” they might include the following recommendations for students who want to perform like heroes:
Turning good ideas into action requires more backbone than wishbone. Don’t stand on the sidelines waiting for someone else to figure out how to solve the problem. The saddest of all human delusions is believing that we have all the time in the world to do what needs to be done.
Don’t be a quitter
The temptation to give up is a formidable obstacle when you are taking on a project of ultimate significance (like saving the world). Setbacks and failures are inevitable but giving up is a choice. The pushing forward process that leads to that ultimate joy of triumph is built upon many small steps, decisions and actions.
Be yourself but don’t be selfish
Diversity is at the heart of “do or die” teams. Relationships are grounded in mutual respect, not soul destroying office politics. They don’t wear masks to impress each other and get ahead. Team members are allowed to be their own imperfect and quirky selves but selfishness is not tolerated. Millennial (Affleck) and Boomer (Willis) spar and collide but they overcome their differences to get the job done.
Disasters are the precise opposite of everyday situations and inevitably involve unprecedented challenges. Disruptive technologies and “out of the box” problem solving are required and this means being able to see beyond the bias and blindness of long-standing habits.
Choose Action Over Worry
Worry is that negative voice in the back of your mind telling you that time is running out and things are not going well, siphoning off your energy in the process. Those miniature plastic hero toys kids play with and admire are called Action Figures not Worry Figures. Learning to silence the sirens of worry is a prerequisite to taking effective action.
The appeal of a well executed disaster yarn is based in this timeless story of an ordinary person rising above their fears to overcome an existential challenge and find love and meaning in the process.
Yes the movies are packed with moments of silliness and machismo.
Yet, the story of doing the right thing in the face of death remains a powerful metaphor for the challenge of being human and has the capacity to touch us in spite of all the movie’s obvious flaws.
“Looking upon myself from the perspective of society, I am an average person. Facing myself intimately, immediately, I regard myself as unique, as exceedingly precious, not to be exchanged for anything else.
No one will live my life for me, no one will think my thoughts for me or dream my dreams.
In the eyes of the world, I am an average man. But to my heart I am not an average man. To my heart I am of great moment. The challenge I face is how to actualize the quiet eminence of my being.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel